“Believe it or not, he’s the good guy,” proclaims the tagline for Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Well, it definitely needed to be said. With his horns — filed to stumps or not — as well as his red skin, goatee and tail, Hellboy overtly embodies universally recognizable cultural iconography of the enemy of mankind in the great war of powers and principalities.
This imagery isn’t limited to Christianity. George Lucas claimed to have included Hindu and Greek mythology in researching the look of the similarly demonic-looking Darth Maul. (Turns out “A lot of evil characters have horns,” Lucas told Bill Moyers in 1999.)
Still, Hellboy’s world — like those of other recent supernatural-themed films including Constantine and Ghost Rider — seems significantly shaped by Christian culture. (All three of these films are based on comic books; other recent comic-book movies lacking supernatural themes have offered similar instances of religious imagery, including Daredevil and X2.)
Hellboy may be a walking oxymoron, a “good demon”… but he’s the singular exception to the rule. The first Hellboy movie establishes the occult world as a distinctly unfriendly place; the title character aside, demons are creatures of pure evil, existing only to destroy and consume. Moreover, those who battle them use crosses, crucifixes, rosaries and other recognizable emblems of Christian faith. (The comics apparently establish, though the movie doesn’t, that Hellboy is a devout Catholic.)
In this regard, Hellboy is heir to a movie tradition going back to the B-movie Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 60s, particularly those directed by Terence Fisher (The Devil’s Bride, Horror of Dracula), a high-church Anglican. Fisher’s films depict demons, vampires and all creatures of evil helpless before the inexorable power of the cross. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in 1931 may have cringed from a crucifix dangling from a potential victim’s neck, but Fisher turned the cross into a weapon capable of damaging and even destroying evil. (The Christian worldview of Fisher’s Hammer horrors has been explored at some length by Presbyterian clergyman Paul Leggett in Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion.)
Fisher’s “weaponized” portrayal of crosses, crucifixes, holy water and the like has greatly influenced the portrayal of evil in pop entertainment, from Hellboy and Constantine to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The Church also has some sort of role combatting the powers of darkness in films like Van Helsing and John Carpenter’s Vampires, even if those films may not portray crosses and other Christian symbols with the power they have elsewhere.
At the same time, the Christian influence originally so significant in Fisher’s world is often vestigial at best in these later stories. Too often, notions of faith and God are nearly or entirely absent, the Church is little more than an eccentric world power, and the cross little more than a talisman or magic charm.
In other films, though, real Christian belief and the Church as an institution relying on faith against the gates of hell comes to the surface, perhaps most obviously in The Exorcist and more recently The Exorcism of Emily Rose. These films depict spiritual warfare in a less stylized but also more ambiguous way, with the tide of battle not so black-and-white as in a Hammer horror film.
Among The Exorcist’s most vivid moments is the scene in which the two priests stand side by side holding crosses, shouting in unison, “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed girl hovers several feet above the bed. In a Hammer horror, that would have been the end of the struggle; here this spiritual warfare seems to leave both the demon and the priests depleted, with the girl sinking to the bed and the priests retiring to catch their breaths.
Whatever the balance of power between good and evil in these films, there’s an obvious sense in which nearly every film in the genre portrays a world in which the powers of hell seems to play a far more active and visible role in the world than the powers of heaven. Demons and other unholy things may or may not be checked or destroyed with crucifixes and the like — but seldom if ever is there any hint that angels also are active in human affairs.
The imbalance isn’t just in horror or comic-book movies. The Passion of the Christ includes several instances of satanic imagery, beginning with the appearance of the Tempter in the garden — but of the angel that strengthened Jesus in the garden (Luke 22:43) there is no sign.
Even when a movie like Constantine happens to offer a few angels, they make hardly any difference. While demons run amok, angels seem to stand passively on the sidelines; in one scene demons slowly murder a priest right in front of an angel, who can only comfort the man as he dies. Constantine’s angels seem neither as powerful as the demons nor as good as the demons are evil. In fact, in most of these movies, including Hellboy, there’s little or no suggestion that demons are fallen angels in the first place.
Why is there so much hell and so little heaven in these movies? Partly, perhaps, it’s because filmmakers simply don’t know what to do with God — not just theologically, but for the sheer dramatic difficulty posed by omnipotence. It’s the Superman dilemma times infinity: Against that much power, how do you make the enemy a credible threat? Even Gandalf’s power was ultimately too intimidating for Peter Jackson and company; once it became clear he could drive off the flying Nazgûl, the filmmakers feared the enemy might seem too diminished. (This was the rationale for the problematic scene in which the Witch-King shatters Gandalf’s staff.)
Another reason for the neglect of heaven is simply that heaven is harder to do. C. S. Lewis noted this point in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, in which he regretted being unable to offset Screwtape’s diabolical perspective with a parallel heavenly correspondence presenting “arch-angelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel.” While the task of twisting his mind into a hellish perspective was for Lewis oppressive but not difficult, assuming an angelic voice seemed to him all but unachievable.
While Lewis did later achieve some success in dramatically depicting the outskirts of Heaven in The Great Divorce, the general disparity of depicting heaven and hell in art and drama has been felt by many. It’s not hard to see why. Beauty is more elusive an effect than grotesquerie; misery and wretchedness are far easier to inflict, and therefore to imagine and express, than joy and beatitude are to bestow or evoke.
Even biblical or cultural images of hell (unquenchable flames, demons with pitchforks) are more immediately persuasive the biblical or cultural images of heaven (thrones and crowns, halos and harps). Every sinful impulse in us is hell in miniature, while our best impulses fall infinitely short of the glory of Heaven. In a word, God’s absence is easier to imagine than the fulness of His presence.
Like the familiar narrative dilemma of the colorful villain who makes the hero look pale by comparison — think of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch, Clarisse Starling and Hannibal Lecter — the remoteness of heaven versus the imminence of hell seems a not unnatural creative side effect of our limited perspective as finite and fallen creatures.
Simone Weil argued that since real evil is boring and real good is fascinating, fiction that makes evil seem more interesting than good is immoral. That might be too sweeping and absolute a judgment, but at least it’s an issue to be aware of. A similar point could be made regarding the imminence of heaven and hell in movies like Hellboy.
Even if such movies give us no more than evil to fight against, evil itself is a signpost of sorts pointing to goodness and God. A world without God is a world in which good and evil are meaningless concepts, in which there are no monsters or demons, only differences and misunderstanding. The moment you contemplate that the devil hates you and has a horrible plan for your life, the jig is up.
Crosses and rosaries and such, even when seen as no more than talismans, are likewise signposts, tacitly attesting the historical hegemony of Christianity in Western culture. We may live in a post-Christian civilization, but it is still post-Christian, and the place of Christianity in the collective imagination remains unique. Americans may increasingly prefer vague “spirituality” to organized religion, but crystal skulls and sankara stones still don’t do it for us like the ark of the covenant and the Holy Grail — or the cross.
You won’t find the gospel in movies like Hellboy. What you may find are signs of a world that has been touched by the gospel — a world that retains some awareness of sinister forces to be avoided or resisted, of evil that cannot be overcome by therapy or education or communication, that calls for a response from another realm entirely.
Bigger effects and badder creatures make Del Toro’s second take on Hellboy more entertaining than the original, but something’s still missing in the story of the super hero from hell.
The best thing about Hellboy is Hellboy. And he’s a demon.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.